Wednesday, February 14, 2007

20 Tips for Living in Small Spaces

Living in Japan for most of us almost certainly means living in small spaces. Even if you live in a relatively large place, you still probably have small rooms. When we first arrived, with little furniture and relatively few items, space seemed relatively plentiful. As time went by and our possessions and amount of furniture grew, things grew increasingly cramped and chaotic. We also graduated from a double bed to a queen size after about 4 years and that consumed the better part of our 6-mat (107 sq. feet) bedroom.

Three or four years ago, I decided I'd pretty much had it with a lot of problems I was having because of the space and started doing some major overhauling. There were a few things I learned in trying to make living in a small space better. Those of you who have slogged your way through my apartment tour will already have heard a bit of this information sprinkled throughout it as part of my picture descriptions.

This picture makes that curtain look much more see-through than it actually is. The flash really illuminates the closet. It's actually nearly so dark that you can hardly see through. My computer equipment and storage boxes for electronics goods are hidden back there. I can pull aside the curtain to access things as needed. This is my re-purposed closet. Below is what it's like inside without the curtain.

1. Spaces don't have to be used for their intended purpose. For example, just because you have a closet somewhere, it doesn't mean you have to use it as a closet. I took the doors off mine and made it into an extension of my desk. The same goes for furnishings or other storage areas. Re-purpose spaces to suit your needs rather than try and shoehorn things into them. Take an especially good look at doors that swing out and how they impede your ability to use space efficiently. Remove cabinet or closet doors and store them in a clean, safe area (and keep the screws in a Ziploc bag in a place where you won't lose track of them) so you can re-attach them when you leave.

2. Digitize where possible. Rather than saving up stacks of those little paper photo booklets full of printed pictures that you get from photo developers, only keep digital copies on at least two forms or copies of back-up media. The pictures you enjoy flipping through now will only add to your clutter as time goes by. The same goes for video. At the very least, get both a digital and hard copy so you can toss the hard copy later if you'd like.

3. Comb through your possessions at regular intervals and toss out or give away anything you haven't used in over a year unless it serves a specific purpose which is fairly important to you. This was a hard one for me to do because I grew up poor and the idea of "wasting" anything that was even modestly serviceable was anathema to my family but I did it. Try not to succumb to the "this might be useful" later type of thinking. If you haven't used it in over a year, there's little chance you'll use it in the future.

4. If you've got 2 or more of something, consider if you really only need one and toss out the inferior one. Last time I visited home (quite some time ago), my mother got angry with me for throwing out a rusty spatula claiming it could be sanded and used. Of course, she had several other spatulas and had no plans to clean that one up but she certainly wasn't going to throw it out as long as a scrap of use could be wrung out of it. While I admire the "mend rather than end" attitude, that doesn't apply to items you have duplicates (or more) of.

5. Position everything such that it's easy to get at and put away. This will reduce clutter greatly by making it less of a chore to move things around. If you constantly find yourself leaving things where they "don't belong" then they deserve a more convenient permanent storage area.

The types of hooks that you can use on wood trim in Japanese apartments sometimes come with a plastic back which you can remove if your trim is thicker.

6. Hooks are your friends in Japanese apartments, especially if you have little closet space. There is wood trim around the edges of the walls in most Japanese places and non-damaging hooks are sold on which you can place clothes, bags, etc. While it's not necessarily pretty, it is highly functional and convenient. Mainly, this is good for the bedroom. If you have guests and don't like the look of them, you can remove them easily on a temporary basis. These hooks are sold at most 100 yen shops and supermarkets.

7. Stay away from appliances you don't really need. One of the things my husband and I bought in Japan was a rice cooker. It ended up being the case that, while the rice cooker cooked rice well, we didn't eat rice all that often and we didn't eat it in large quantities. We are better off buying packets of pre-made rice on the infrequent occasions when we have it. Similarly, a lot of people are enticed by the handy hot water pots you can squirt near-boiling water out of for quick tea, ramen, or soup. Unless you need the service of these items more than a few times a week, you could probably live without them and free up valuable space. Even though I drink tea nearly every day, I just microwave the water to boiling.

8. Dishes seem to breed and multiply in Japan. You get them free from some shops and restaurants (Mister Donut seems to give them away on occasion). They are attached to some food items. People give you them as gifts and we pick them up frequently as souvenirs. They're often cute and or have funny sayings. Try not to go nuts with dishes and force yourself to toss out the ones you think are cute but go unused for other reasons (like they're too small, big, or hard to handle).

This area is virtually a dark hole without my camera's flash. Since these recyclables are so light, they don't crush or hinder the washing machine's water hose in any way.

9. Locate dead space and find a good use for it. "Dead" space commonly includes necessary space behind and beneath furniture (but not on top - see next item). For instance, there is a gap between my washing machine and the wall which is necessary because of the drainage tube that goes into the huge plastic platform the washer sits on. I use that space to store recyclable Styrofoam trays and egg cartons in plastic shopping bags. Since I need 6 areas to separate recyclable trash and this stuff is light, it's a good place to keep it. It's also a bonus that it is impossible to see from almost any angle (because it's dark, narrow and behind a big appliance) so visitors can't see what is stored there. I also use the space under my bed to store our disassembled fan in winter. Be careful though to store purposefully and not cram a bunch of stuff in dead spaces just to get it out of the way for awhile.

Yes, I know the last one doesn't match but the shop that sold the first two went out of business. We rescued the last one from the trash collector.

10. Buy tall furniture rather than low and wide furniture. This gives you storage without taking up valuable floor space. Position tall shelves or cabinets in places where they won't topple if there's a big earthquake or anchor them so they won't fall. Anchoring techniques include tension bars that fill the gap between the top of a shelf and the ceiling or putting carpet squares at the front of the item so that it leans back slightly. The carpet square technique uses the furniture's own weight to keep it anchored against the wall. It'll take a lot more force to topple over furniture set up like this. Try to resist the temptation to stack things on top of shelves. It just looks cluttered and makes your space feel cramped. If you must stack things on top, use structural support (e.g, bookends or frames) for it and make it look organized.

I put paper in the front of these clear plastic CD storage bins so there wouldn't be a jumble of various CD covers showing through.

11. Try to buy shelves with doors to cover up all-purpose storage areas. This provides a smooth front for clutter and allows you to organize. Open storage is best for items that you have a lot of the same type of thing such as books, DVDs, and collectibles that follow a theme. If you've got clear storage bins and it looks chaotic, cover the front with same-colored paper inserts.

Using 4 small plastic drawers, I can use almost every inch of this cabinet and get at anything stored in there without trouble. The laminater just fits on top and spare packing tape nicely fits on the side.

12. Divide large blocks of storage space with smaller storage units. There are tons of plastic drawers and storage bins of all sizes for sale in shops in Japan. Try to make smaller divisions for various categories of items (stationary items, tools, computer supplies, etc.). You can take advantage of more of the space you have by sub-dividing it using organizational items. Opt for drawers over bins so you can just pull them open to get at things. With bins, you have to take the top off so stacking them makes it hard to retrieve or put away things quickly.

A student gave me this mailbox about 12 years ago as a gift. I attached it to the side of my refrigerator which is next to a table (where I can open mail) that has a trashcan under so I can throw away the garbage right away.

13. When you bring in the mail, open it up next to an area with a trash can and remove all the envelopes and toss out all the junk right away. Create a storage area for holding bills or other items that you need to deal with later. Keep a file box for important documents and file them just after opening the mail. If you can't deal with the 3 minutes of fussiness this involves when you carry the mail in, don't open it until you're ready to properly deal with it.

My handy-dandy filing system keeps all the important stuff in one place so I don't have to go anywhere else when it's time to go to the local government office, immigration, or dig out a receipt to prove to the Japanese police that I didn't steal any of my possessions.

14. Consider storing clothes in cabinets with doors rather than drawers. It's a lot easier to see things, stores more, and you can get much taller cabinets than dressers.

Yes, it could be tidier but I can find anything I want in there even in this state.

15. Clear the tops of surfaces and decorate. Don't scatter your collected tidbits on open surfaces. Consider how the items fit in the space and how they coordinate with one another. If you have a lot of mismatched knick-knacks or souvenirs and you like all of them, divide them into style or color sets and rotate them rather than scatter them about all at once. Also, try to go for bigger rather than smaller pieces both for pictures and for decorative objects. Lots of tiny things in a small space make it feel small and cluttered. I'm not the greatest decorator by far but I do try and match things up in areas which are visual focal points. Small spaces tolerate less fussiness than larger spaces. Additionally, if you want to avoid a college dorm look, try to frame any pictures or posters that you use. Frames are another thing you can get at 100 yen shops.

16. Keep an eye on your canned and dry foods (e.g., pasta). Don't accumulate large amounts of food you don't eat. It also helps to write the date with a permanent marker on food that can be in long-term storage. If there's something that you've had around for over 6 months and haven't eaten, either eat it in the next week (put it on the counter or table to remind you to eat it) or throw it out. Remember that you can't throw away cans full of food in Japan. You have to empty the food out of it, remove the label, wash the can, and recycle it. It also helps to only buy specialty food that you plan to incorporate into your immediate menu when you shop. Don't buy something unusual because it's cheap and will last awhile. Buy it because it's cheap and you're going to have it this weekend or in a few days.

17. If you live with other people, work with their needs, not against them. One of the lessons I learned after many years of fighting my husband's tendency to toss things everywhere is that you can't always have everything "just so" unless you're prepared to be the one who is going to do the work to keep it that way. My husband likes to come home from work and empty his pockets into a basket. If I don't give him a proper place, he'll start leaving things in other places which suit him. Additionally, if I make it hard for him to put things away, he's far more likely to toss them on the floor or sofa and forget about them. It's his apartment, too, so he has the right to have things in easy reach even when I think things would look cleaner or tidier in another way. If you live with someone and they constantly do something untidy or fail to put things away, you're probably fighting an uphill battle to get them to do it your way and are better off adjusting the way things are arranged to make it easier for them. This is a far bigger issue in small places because we have less completely private space.

18. Try to overlap functionality, particularly for electronic items. This can be tricky because it may require technical prowess. I can't say that I've completely gone this route but I will be purchasing with an eye toward it in the future. If you can share displays, keyboards, and mice on multiple machines with a KVM switch, do it. If you can attach one set of speakers to all the devices (computer, T.V., DVD player, etc.) that you use audio and video with, do it. Ironically, one of the things which is relatively important in bigger places, going wireless, is less important in smaller places since you don't really have all that far to string wires around. It'd still be easier but it's not integral. However, if you have to snake wires, try to do it under carpets ad behind furniture where possible.

19. Unless you eat at a table or use one for projects everyday, consider taking advantage of the wide variety of folding tables you can buy in Japan. Even if you end up leaving the table up most of the time, having the option to tuck it away can sometimes be useful. Also, don't rely on a table which isn't well-positioned for a work space. Try to clear surfaces as workspaces where you really need them (in the kitchen and at your desk). If you've got one of those incredibly dinky little kitchenettes, do the best you can not to put anything on the limited counter space you have so you can prepare food on it.

Image lifted from Dinos who sell these fine items.

If the space you have is next to your sink, buy an in-sink or elevated dish drainer (shown above). You can dry and put away large items that won't fit in the smaller racks. If your space is a ridged area that is a part of the sink, consider getting a large, plastic cutting board to cover it so you can work on it. Such cutting boards, again, are frequently available at 100 yen shops.

20. Choose the right kind of furniture. Just because you're in Japan, it doesn't mean you have to sit under a low table or sit on the floor on pillows. Early on, my husband and I wasted money on furnishings that didn't suit us. Eventually, we ended up trying to cram these pieces in around western pieces we found more comfortable making our small space burst at the seams with furniture. Since we were reluctant to toss out perfectly good items even if we didn't like them or use them, they tended to just take up space. Before you buy a bunch of low or floor-level furniture to get into the spirit of things, think about whether or not that's how you want to relax, eat, etc. day-in and day-out. Many Japanese people don't use traditional furnishings in modern apartments. While you can't pick up your furnishings on street corner trash piles like you used to, you can pick up some nice items cheaply at second-hand shops.

The best way to tell how well you've organized your space is by seeing how comfortable you feel in it when you're not occupied with T.V. or the computer or whatever. If you feel a sense of peace and comfort, you've probably got it set up pretty well to suit your needs.


Elizabeth said...

WHAT AN EDUCATION! I have been running through my house looking for "dead" space and the hint about using paper to cover the chaotic look of see through clear plastic bins/containers is gratefully received. Nice blog.

Shari said...

Hi lizza, and thanks for your comment. :-) I'm glad you found this information helpful.

If you have any of your own tips, I'm always looking for more.

Helen said...

Ooh, Shari...great post. Hubby and I are both huge clutterers. I'm bad, but I think he's worse cause he wouldn't think of getting shelving/cupboardy things to put stuff in.

I'll see if I can put some of this stuff into action.


Anonymous said...


Classic post, I can identify completely with the situation described!

When Satoko and I moved into our somewhat ironically-named "Leo Palace" apartment last October, we spent a good couple of hours measuring every single nook and cranny, before scouring the 100 yen shops and discount furniture stores for anything that would fit into these precious spaces.

Apparently, our one-room (8 matt) apartment is designed for two, although the bedroom (in the loft), which is only wide enough to fit 1.5 futons in, suggests otherwise.

As it is now, I'm astonished by the amount of storage space we have managed to create through the use of such things as temporary shelves supported by those extendable poles stuck between a couple of walls. I even managed to turn the washing machine (with the annoying sloping top) into the perfect kitchen work-surface, by popping down to Tokyu Hands and buying a large pine board, a number of brackets, and a saw. It now fits perfectly in position, held in place by the water inlet pipe at the back of the washing machine.

I do wonder though, why aren't front-loading machines popular over here?

Anyway, I've been following your blog now for a few weeks after a chance discovery via Google, and I love it! It's great to hear that yourself and T are ok.

Any news on Mr. Darryl?

Take care,

Joseph, in Itabashi-ku.

Shari said...

Helen: If you do some stuff, please post some pictures of your successful reorganizing. I love that sort of stuff (yes, I'm strange).

(Mr.) Joseph: Hey there. :-) I actually have been peeking in on your blog as well and knew you were back in Japan for a bit. I held my tongue on ragging on you for becoming a Mac user after your scathing comments toward my Mac usage back in the day. ;-) I have to list you as a link. I'm incredibly pathetic about updating links!

I talked to Darryl last weekend. He's going out on sales trips now and is out of town for the week. He's still being overworked and has little time to pursue hobbies anymore, poor soul.

Thanks for your kind words and comment (as well as for reading). I hope things continue to go well for you. Take care!

Anonymous said...

Ah, yes, I must admit I had to laugh at myself when I did finally buy my Macbook, and recalled the kind of things I would say about your 'pretend' computers! As you have gathered no doubt, I have now swung the other way completely, with no less than 6 substantial bits of Apple gear in the house!

Sorry to hear about the problems with your Mac Mini, I was pretty surprised to hear that (shows how blinded by my love for all things Mac that I have become!).

Reading your '10 more tips for living in small spaces' I feel quite inadequate in terms of the effort that I have put in to getting the most out of our shoebox!

Thanks for the link. I shall add a link to your blog right away.

Should you tire of endless mumbles about ME ME ME do feel free to remove the link, I won't be offended. That's one of the things I like about My So-Called Japanese Life; it's not one big ego trip, unlike some blogs I could mention! An inspiration.

Thanks for the news on Darryl; I'll drop him a line to say hello.

Hello to Mr. T. Hope he's doing well, and keeping J.K. Rowling on her toes!

Shari said...

Ah, Joseph, as Mr. Darryl liked to say, "you are a one." I'm not sure what that means but I think it means you're unique in a good way.

I have my ego posts as well but tend to be a bit too self-conscious to write in the same style as most bloggers. I know your blog is about you but I also know that your stories are very educational about Japan and travel in general. I know I learned a lot from your adventures doing that business in the countryside where you worked for room and board (I tried to re-locate the story on your site but was too incompetent to do so). Don't sell yourself short. Your writing is full of charm.

Also, I've been working on my slightly extended shoebox for nearly 18 years. You've been here this time around for a relatively short time. I hope our place is a bit further along on the space utilization curve. ;-)

T. is great, though he's working his tail off and due to work even more in the near future. :-(

Melanie Gray Augustin said...

Some great ideas! I just curtained a large set of tall shelves last week to tidy it all up. My favourite in terms of space-saving was the stand I bought to go over the washing machine and how I've arranged my bathroom stuff I'll try to take some pictures on the weekend to show you.

Shari said...

Thanks for commenting, Melanie! Pictures would be super! I'll be looking forward to seeing them.

Anonymous said...

I know it's an old post, but I just have to say that this bit really made me laugh: "If you have guests and don't like the look of them, you can remove them easily on a temporary basis.". I wish I could do that to my guests! ;)

Thanks for the tips though!

Anonymous said...

Hey -- an article written in a Canadian Magazine discusses how living in bigger spaces does not actually make people happy. Check it out: "Me Want More Square Footage-- Why Following the Urge to Buy Big Might Not Make you Happy"

WereBear said...

Great tips!

I moved into my now husband's bachelor pad (1 1/2 bedroom apt in the attic of an old house) and we've stayed because the place has everything we want but size.

One tip that has DOUBLED my clothes storage: fold pants, t-shirts, shorts, etc longways, then roll them up to put lengthwise into storage cabinets and drawers.

You can get twice as many into armoires and dressers that way, and can find them much more easily, because you are seeing your entire inventory at once.

This is perfect for tall cabinets, but also works for drawers because even stacked, you can see what you have much more easily.